This was supposed to be a talk at the Oxford History Faculty, but circumstances prevented me from actually giving it in person. Apologies to them, therefore (though I am sure that EHR were at least as helpful). Below is what I usually say to graduate students about getting published in journals. It’s *just* possible that there’s some advice in here for people who aren’t grads, too…
First, make sure that what you’ve got for publication is actually an article. An article stands alone and makes sense to readers all by itself. It is not a master’s thesis or a chapter of your doctoral dissertation (it may once have been one of those things but it will not be in the same form). Adapting elements of your thesis may well produce an article, but do be mindful of what you might want to do with the whole once you’ve finished. If you want to publish it as a monograph, you need to be careful about what you release before that. Sometimes, side branches of your research make for better articles. Whatever the case may be, writing an article is very different from writing a thesis. You don’t need anything like so many footnotes. It needs to read attractively: style matters, and a well-written journal article is an art form of its own. You are writing for a wide (we hope!) readership, not for two examiners who are there to rigorously test your scholarship (but to whom, as experts, the significance and novelty of your research will probably be clear).
On which: be very clear what your article’s contribution is. Does it illuminate or expand an existing field, does it change our way of thinking about something (e.g. method, interpretation), does it add to knowledge? What is novel: technique, method, application of theory or concept, information, sources, analysis?
Next, choose your journal carefully. A generalist journal such as P&P won’t publish a detailed specialist breakdown of your tiny (albeit exciting) new archival discovery, because our readers won’t know why it matters. Equally, a journal with a specialist readership doesn’t need pages of exposition and background and will want you to get to the nitty-gritty for readers who are already in the know. Some journals are obviously more sympathetic to particular approaches; many have restrictions on subjects covered. Don’t submit to an unfamiliar journal just because you think it’s prestigious.
Then, write your article for that journal. Keep to its word limits. (If you can’t, perhaps it isn’t the right journal). Follow its style guide (really). Write for its readership: for us, that means making the significance of your article clear to our non-specialist readers, and avoiding specialist terminology.
OK: you’ve got your article and chosen your journal. Now you need to follow their submission process (you can read about ours here and find out what happens next here). Many journals these days ask for online submissions; some might use email. Perhaps there are still some which want hard copy. It’s reasonable to expect an acknowledgement of your submission from the journal, or at least from its online system. You then need to be patient. Peer review takes time, often up to six months (possibly even longer). At P&P we make most decisions within four months, but some take longer, specially as we might ask four or five readers to comment on papers which we think have real potential. You mustn’t submit to more than one journal at a time. You need to be realistic about time frames: every stage of this process takes quite a lot of time.
Once the editors have had sufficient feedback from the readers about your article, they will contact you with their decision. This is very often a rejection. (Very very often, for P&P: we reject more than 80% of what we’re sent.) But the process hasn’t been a complete waste of time: you’ll get feedback on your submission, usually in the form of the readers’ reports. These can make for painful reading as readers are strictly speaking writing for the editors, and can sometimes be fairly blunt in their assessments. But it really should be helpful to you to know what others make of your work. If, of course, you’ve just picked the wrong journal then you might just get a set of reports which say ‘perfectly publishable, just not with us’ – that’s less useful, and we’re back to my earlier point about getting the journal right in the first place. I’ve said a bit more about how to use reports below.
Sometimes you might be invited to resubmit a rejected piece, to go through peer review for the same journal again. That means that the editors think there is real potential there, and it’s worth serious consideration if you do get such an invitation.
And sometimes you might get an acceptance. That will nearly always be subject to some revision, so be prepared to spend some time revising the article, then on checking the copy-editing and the proofs in due course. Again, let me insert a warning about how much time these things take, and now I don’t just mean how much time you should allow for other people to do their bit. Writing articles takes a lot of work, and it’s not work that directly benefits your thesis – so your supervisor may have views on how much of your time you should dedicate to getting published. I doubt it’s something that you should prioritise over finishing the thesis. Indirectly, however, it can only be good for you to start learning how to write in a different style; to get used to peer review and the criticism of anonymous readers; and, of course, to get some entries in the ‘publications’ section of your CV, probably the first place most potential employers will look (and journal articles are much favoured in the REF).
Here are a couple of good questions I’ve been asked recently:
“What if a reviewer disagrees with you – does that block acceptance?” – definitely not. Disagreement is what we thrive on, after all. Editors don’t have to take up the recommendations of the readers, and frequently don’t (readers often disagree with one another, in fact – see below!). And disagreeing with analysis/interpretation is often very different from saying that the scholarship is poor, or that the article doesn’t add much to current understanding (both of which would be likely to pose more of an obstacle to acceptance).
“How should authors manage conflicting reader reports?” – good q, as it happens very often. It depends a bit on what you’re being asked to do with them. If the article has been accepted, then you could ask the editor for guidance on what to do with conflicting recommendations for revision. If your piece has been rejected and you’re using the reports to help you revise it for submission elsewhere, then use your own judgement. Maybe discuss with your supervisor, and peers. It’s also worth asking yourself why there are conflicting reports. Is the subject contentious? Is the expression of your ideas at all ambiguous or opaque – can you do anything to clarify what you’re saying?